Theater of Cruelty

When life has to move on

Regissør: Dag Johan Haugerud

NORWEGIAN GAME MOVIE / With Venice-relevant Children, Dag Johan Haugerud paints a thought-provoking and empathetic portrait of Norwegian society, in one of the strongest Norwegian feature films of many years.


Dag Johan Haugerud has long been noted as a peculiar Norwegian filmmaker, with a playful and ingenious look at big questions in more or less everyday settings. In 2001 he won the Gold Chair at the Short Film Festival in Grimstad fornication, a short film made as part of the anthology film The seven sins of death (which also consisted of short films by, among others, Margreth Olin and Maria Sødahl). After that, he made the short story Thomas Hylland Eriksen and the story of Origamijenta (2005), a humorous metaphor about political themes set up in cinema and later released in an elaborate DVD release.

In the 2012 feature film he debuted Som du ser meg, also this kind of metafiction, in which he portrayed three women from different walks of life who face challenging dilemmas. Two years later came It's me you want, a fast-paced filming of Sonja Evang's theater monologue. It was based on a true story of a female teacher initiating a relationship with a fifteen-year-old student, with Andrea Bræin Hovig as the film's only actor in the role of teacher. Despite its relatively short length was also It's me you want shown at Norwegian cinemas.

With a strenuous, yet precise approach, the difficult times are explored after the accident.

However, it is with his second feature film Children that director and screenwriter Haugerud – who, by the way, is also a fictional writer – really takes the step up among our foremost feature filmmakers. On September 3, the film has an international premiere in Venice during Venice Days, which runs parallel to the film festival in the same city following the same model as the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes, before it gets an ordinary cinema premiere here in mid-September. Regardless of the fairly prestigious festival selection Children undoubtedly one of the strongest Norwegian feature films in several years.

Death in elementary school

The film revolves around a tragic incident at an elementary school in one of the capital's drab towns, where a 13-year-old girl (Ella Øverbye) accidentally causes the death of a peer boy. She is the daughter of a parliamentary representative for Ap (Hans Olav Brenner), while the dead man is the son of a Frp politician (Thorbjørn Harr). The situation is no less complicated by the fact that the latter has a secret relationship with the school's principal (Henriette Steenstrup), and that the two children's contact teacher (Jan Gunnar Røise) – who is tormented by bad conscience for not being present when the accident happened – is her brother.

The film paints a detailed and multifaceted picture of the time after the incident, where the school tries to map the situation and convey to parents' committees and others that routines and regulations were complied with. The plot follows both the principal, the contact teacher and their family, the parents of the girl who caused the death, and the father who has lost his son, and leaves them all as central characters in the film. All of them are naturally affected by what has happened, and many of the extensive dialogue sequences revolve around this – but also about other things of a greater or lesser nature that concern them. For life must, as is well known, move on.

Not without humor.

Although the starting point is tragic enough, the film is not devoid of the filmmaker's usual humor. For example, it may seem (tragic) comical that the school cannot simply create a memorial page on Facebook – in which case this must be put out to tender for other providers, the principal claims in a meeting with the parents' committee. It would be wrong to call Children a comedy, but it is also not as heavy and gloomy as it may sound.
This impression can probably also be obtained from the fact that the film has a playing time of almost two and a half hours, which according to the film magazine Montages makes it Norway's longest feature film since Kristin Lavransdatter from 1995. Still not experienced Children as some particularly long film, in which it explores the difficult aftermath with a leisurely yet precise approach. Unconventional enough with a structure where potential conflicts do not always have their dramaturgically expected confrontations and consequences.

Realism rather than satire

It is not entirely unnatural to draw parallels to the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, who, like Haugerud, mixes seriousness and humor in cinematic-sociological studies of Scandinavian society and mentality. Östlund's producer Erik Hemmendorff from the production company Platform Produktion is then also a co-producer of this film, while the Norwegian company Motlys, which is behind Children, co-produced by Östlunds Tourist.

However, the similarities were more obvious in Haugerud's feature film debut Som du ser meg, who to a greater extent explored everyday situations that were at the same time comical and unpleasant. Der Östlund especially with his latest film The Square (who won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2017) has moved towards a more pure social satire, Haugerud made the seriousness more prominent in his previous film It's me you want. THE Children combined with a far more realistic approach to both form and content, albeit staged with cinematic elegance. And not least, there is one heat in Haugerud's character portrayals, which are largely absent in Östlund's films.

Children is a complex and empathetic observation of people who try to do the right thing in a demanding situation, both by virtue of their positions and as fellow human beings. In other words, they try to be responsible adults – without them always succeeding in this, as the title suggests.

Despite its in-depth treatment of guilt and guilt, the film never points any admonishing fingers, and it refrains from condemning or ridiculing its characters. Likewise, it is not unequivocally critical of the system it depicts, but nevertheless asks some challenging questions about whether the good can become the enemy of the best. Children is a thoughtful and humanistic film, and a striking and thought-provoking portrait of Norwegian society: well-organized, well-meaning and at times sadly unprofessional.

Children has its Norwegian cinema premiere on 13 September

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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